Monday, December 3, 2012


Contentious governing needs creative leaders, people who are willing to trade and haggle and cajole in order to accomplish something for the greater good, i.e. for the entire country, not one person, one county or one faction.  Nothing is set in stone for these creative leaders.  They understand that, in negotiations, flexibility and the willingness to compromise are virtues.  Abraham Lincoln was such a creative leader.  The new
movie, Lincoln, about his fight to persuade the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment in January 1865 is a stunning achievement in acting and filmmaking that matches Lincoln’s greatness. 

In Lincoln, we get to know a man who loved his youngest son, Tad, unconditionally; who understood the law inside and out and understood the ways in which he needed to bend it even as he hoped no one called him on those bendings; who saw the bigger picture of how a country became divided and what it needed to unite to insure its future; and who could play the game of politics masterfully.  To say he was shrewd is an understatement.  He knew how to use humor to gain himself time to think, and he used his brain rather than leading only from the heart.  Most importantly, he was a creative leader, one that American leaders could learn a great deal from.

The movie runs 2.5 hours but is over in an instant.  I felt as if I was inside that particular time, January 1865, and place, Washington, D.C., usually the White House (pre-West Wing), or the House of Representatives, or battlefields in Virginia.  I am not an expert on that period of U.S. history, but to me, the costumes, hairstyles, manner of speaking, and social customs all rang true and authentic.  Director Steven Spielberg has a talent for illuminating a child’s world and the relationship between father and son, and he shows Lincoln’s two surviving sons and their vastly different relationships with him.  We see Mary Todd Lincoln and her place in his life – supporter, observer, challenger, defender.  There was a family living in the White House at that time, and we see all the messiness unique to families.  We see all the messiness unique to democracy, too.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln in the movie

President Abraham Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln.  We hear Lincoln’s voice, see his plodding walk, his stooped shoulders at home, his love for storytelling, and his thoughtfulness.  In our present world, full of electronics, 24/7 news cycles, and global intimacy, we’ve lost the time for thoughtfulness, for thinking, for analyzing in depth, for knowing a thing inside and out, and developing a vision for it.  Life speeds now.  In 1865, it strolled.  Or plodded, as Lincoln walked.  Day-Lewis’ acting, his integrity and thorough preparation, made his Lincoln a multi-dimensional human being rather than a historical icon.  

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln in the movie
 One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs when Lincoln sits in the telegraph office late at night, pondering what he’s going to say to General Grant about the peace delegation from Richmond.  The two telegraph operators wait and watch as Lincoln sits and thinks.  He then reads from a paper he takes out of his stovepipe hat, and one of the operators writes it down.  But instead of giving the nod to send the message, he engages the two young men in conversation, telling them about his reading of Euclid, of Euclid’s truth of equality.  Then he thinks again.  Finally he revises his message to General Grant, approves it to be sent, and leaves.  This scene unfolds at a slow pace but it passes fast.  It is like listening to a piece of classical music that suspends time for its duration because it has created its own time for the listener.  Bravo to Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and Day-Lewis for this scene.

Day-Lewis has some august company working with him: Sally Field as Mary Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens the Abolitionist, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, David Strathairn as Secretary of State Seward, among others.  The young boy who played Lincoln’s son Tad, however, had the toughest scene.  Rather than go the expected route at the end of the movie regarding Lincoln’s assassination, Spielberg chose to take an unexpected route involving Tad to heart-breaking effect.

I highly, highly recommend this movie, not only for the history, for being there as Lincoln works to gain passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, but for Spielberg’s accomplishment of putting viewers in that time and place, for Tony Kushner’s masterful screenplay, for Day-Lewis’ performance, and for the emotional depth of this film.  I love it when a film stays with me for days, gives me something to talk about, and makes me want to see it again.  I loved Lincoln.      

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